Project creates 'global conversation' on religion


Sherry Rosen

Princeton NJ -- As she planned a major project on women, religion and the African diaspora, Marie Griffith reached out to dozens of scholars in different fields. Some studied Caribbean religion and history; others, African-American social history; and still others, African religion. But they had a common refrain: Nowhere was this subject a prime focus of study, where scholars from different disciplines could come together. And they looked to Princeton to change that fact.

Consensus quickly developed to create a "global conversation" that will take place over the next three years at Princeton's Center for the Study of Religion. Funded by a grant of about $700,000 from the Ford Foundation, this interdisciplinary journey of inquiry into "Women and Religious Change in the African Diaspora" attempts to focus long overdue attention on questions of race and gender in the traditional study of religion.

"The conversation is truly vital today, as growing numbers of people are beginning to analyze the role of religion in cultures in diverse lands," said Griffith, associate director of the center. "Yet many scholars told us that they had never been brought together to have a broad comparative discussion about their work in this area, and they were excited at the contribution we could make by doing this."

Data from the 2000 U.S. Census -- with many people identifying themselves as multiracial -- suggest that traditional conversations about "race" and the African diaspora blur important distinctions among people who share a common heritage. With its focus on religious and gender issues, the new project aims to help tell their stories in a more useful, fuller way.

Griffith said the spotlight will be on religious communities in the African diaspora of North and South America and the Caribbean, where increased ethnic and racial blending provides exciting examples of how belief and practice change over time and across populations, and how practitioners -- especially women -- navigate and frequently drive those changes. The project will focus especially on the ways in which people of African descent have influenced and reshaped Christianity and Islam, historically and in the present. A kick-off symposium, co-sponsored by the Program in African Studies and the Program in African-American Studies, took place on campus in February.

"Looking out at the symposium audience," Griffith said, "I could clearly see how many people of different cultural and racial backgrounds had come together in one room. It tells me that we are already reaching a very broad community."

The symposium hinted at the breadth of topics to be studied. Historian Anthea Butler, visiting research fellow from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, described how the transition of the Black Pentecostal Church from a working-class, separatist sect to a middle-class, civic-minded denomination was foreshadowed by the image of church mothers in smart suits and fur wraps going to the White House to visit Eleanor Roosevelt.

Anthropologist Deidre Crumbley, visiting research fellow from North Carolina State University, sought to understand the limits on women's participation in several independent Yoruba churches in Nigeria, theorizing that these constraints stemmed from an "unholy alliance" of traditional Yoruba culture and European colonialism, among other things.

Components of the three-year project will include postdoctoral fellowships for visiting scholars, a collaborative research team coordinated by Griffith and professor Barbara Savage of the University of Pennsylvania, and a series of public lectures and symposia. Participants will include scholars of religion and African, African-American and women's studies, as well as those from traditional disciplines within the humanities and social sciences.

"We are tapping into scholars doing innovative, creative work," Griffith said. "We will be giving them new resources to continue their research, plus encouragement to have conversations with each other about the implications of that research."

Both undergraduate and graduate students will be eligible for research grants for study in the intersecting areas of religion, race, ethnicity and gender, and new freshman seminars are expected to be created. Activities developed during the grant period will enable the center to continue programs emphasizing race and gender and will strengthen the University's long-term commitment to diversity and inclusiveness, said sociology professor Robert Wuthnow, the center's director.

Scholars and theologians from Africa and the Americas, as well as Princeton faculty from more than a dozen departments and programs, participate in the center's ongoing weekly religion and culture workshops. Together, they are formulating questions that breach the boundaries of the conventional categories of religion, race and gender.

Participants will ask how power is measured and defined within religious organizations, and how it is displayed. They also will explore the effects of religious faith on activism and the implications for public policy. Above all, they will ask how people are able and willing to reinvent the religious traditions that once oppressed them.

"The study of African and diaspora religion is rich with implications for the wider study of religion," Wuthnow said.

The Center for the Study of Religion was founded in 1999, continuing the activities of the former Center for the Study of American Religion and promoting scholarship on religions in other societies. It is funded by the Lilly Endowment, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation and the Carpenter Foundation, and through the Anniversary Campaign for Princeton.
 

top


March 25, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 20
previous   archive   next

Contents

In the news
Graduate students share their expertise in local classrooms
Tilghman visit to Chicago school fires excitement about science

Inside
Tilghman wins international For Women in Science Award
Princeton College burnt!
Students aim to improve Sept. 11 understanding
Wheeler honored at conference

Research
$1 million NSF award funds application of genome data
Three receive Sloan fellowships for research
Project creates 'global conversation' on religion

People
Alumni reach out to not-for-profit organizations
Spotlight
Briefs

Sections
By the numbers: Tiger
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events 


The Bulletin is published weekly during the academic year, except during University breaks and exam weeks, by the Office of Communications. Second class postage paid at Princeton. Permission is given to adapt, reprint or excerpt material from the Bulletin for use in other media.


Subscriptions. The Bulletin is distributed free to faculty, staff and students. Others may subscribe to the Bulletin for $28 for the academic year (half price for current Princeton parents and people over 65). Send a check to Office of Communications, Stanhope Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.


Deadline. In general, the copy deadline for each issue is the Friday 10 days in advance of the Monday cover date. The deadline for the Bulletin that covers April 8&endash;14 is Friday, March 29. A complete publication schedule is available at deadlines or by calling (609) 258-3601.

Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett